‘Crack Music’: Michael Jackson’s Invincible
By Elizabeth Amisu
Inspired by the chapter, ‘Invincible, The Denouement Album’ from The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson by Elizabeth Amisu (Praeger, 2016).
Abstract: Little academic writing has been devoted to Michael Jackson’s final studio album, Invincible. This article explores Invincible through Kanye West’s metaphor of Crack Music from the 2005 album, Late Registration and places it in the context of black aspiration as a threat to dominant Western ideologies.
Essay by Elizabeth Amisu, PGCE, MA, editor of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies and author of The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife.
Amisu, Elizabeth. “‘Crack Music’: Michael Jackson’s ‘Invincible’.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies1, no. 2 (2015). Published electronically 24/10/14. https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/elizabeth-amisu-crack-music-michael-jacksons-invincible/. Originally published in Writing Eliza(2014). 23/10/14. http://elizabethamisu.com/2014/10/23/crack-music-michael-jacksons-invincible-2/.
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‘Crack Music’: Michael Jackson’s ‘Invincible’
by Elizabeth Amisu
‘Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine
So we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it, sell it.’1
Listen to the track, Crack Musicfrom Kanye West’s 2005 album, Late Registration. The political, ‘Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer’ is intertwined with the historical, ‘we’ve been hanging from the same tree ever since’ and religious, ‘God, how could you let this happen?’ West’s gospel harmonies soar, as if reaching for impossible dreams while his lyrics remain entrenched in the gutter. A similar bittersweet-ness is found in the rising choruses of Whatever Happensand Heaven Can Waitfrom Invincible. Both songs deal with existential themes and death is at the centre. There is a heavenwards reach, ‘tell the angels no’ tempered with an earthbound fear, ‘if the Lord should come for me before I wake’.2
The curious dichotomy between what nourishes us and what kills us is the stage on which all Jackson’s songs were performed. Like Jackson did years before him, ‘black man, blackmail, throw the brother in jail’, West continually questions how blacks can forge identity in a predominantly white Western world, ‘they wanna pack us all in a box like styrofoam’. While Jackson encodes his sentiments in metaphor, ‘I’m not a ghost from Hell, but I’ve got a spell on you’, West laces them with taboo lexis, ‘that’s that crack music nigga’.3
Some critics may disparage rap music as in binary opposition to art, and ‘one can readily find aesthetic reasons which seem to discredit it as a legitimate art form’ but West’s career was made by using the form to engage in tough racial discourse. It is unsurprising then that both were soon deemed eccentric and ridiculous, ‘West is an idiot, so mired in a fog of narcissism and self-delusion that he doesn’t realise the full implications of what he’s saying’.4
But what exactly is ‘crack music’ and what does it have to do with Michael Jackson’s final studio album? Well, although Invincibleis the least known of all Michael Jackson’s solo albums, (much like his book of poetry, Dancing the Dream), it was undoubtedly ‘explosive’, ‘intoxicating’ and an example of a black man selling “black” music to a predominantly white (Western) world. Invinciblewas also a ‘crack’ in Jackson’s career.5
Invincible marked the beginning of a new phase, a change of artistic and musical direction and unsurprisingly, it jarred with contemporary music critics, ‘he does need to leave Michael Jacksonland, that place where every sign points back to the spectacle of himself’. This particular critic simply ignores the fact that many of us were born (musically, metaphorically and artistically) in “Michael Jacksonland” and will continue to live there as long as his unparalleled influence pervades.6
Performance poet Malik Yusef, who speaks on West’s Crack Musiciterates the eponym as the way ‘former slaves trade hooks for Grammys’. However, that exchange is mired because respect cannot be bought. Still, the black artist has no choice but to own all of it: the otherness and fragmentation. It is the dynamic repossessing of these difficulties which transforms poison into power, ‘this dark diction has become America’s addiction’.7
By 2001 andInvincible’srelease, the world of popular music had changed radically. Jackson was no stranger to leaping across the decades but this time things were (as in the Thrillershort film) different. He was simultaneously a living legend, a caricature and a has-been. Jackson’s dream of beating Thriller’sphenomenal record sales was distant. Even if he ever stood a chance of accomplishing it, he could never have done so without the fair wind of public opinion. The shadow of suspicion raised by extortion decimated his reputation and by proxy, his sales.8
The poison which spiked Jackson’s career was ‘thinly veiled racism’ which effectively barred him from the artistic recognition he sought and deserved. Jackson’s delinquency was the outrageous notion that he was both extraordinarily successful and black. Kanye West’s ‘crack music’ is predominantly black music. It ‘oozes through nooks and crannies’ so black women don’t have to remain ‘cooks and nannies’. It changes the status quo, turns poison into power and must be silenced at all costs.9
For many, the Invinciblealbum was a drug that did not do what it had promised. As in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, happy thoughts alone cannot give flight. Jackson recognised Tinker Bell as the true hero of her story and was eventually buried with her ‘slinging a stream of the dust he so loved inside the right breast of [his] jacket’. It is a combination of fairy dust and ‘happy thoughts’ that convinces the wearer they can fly. Perhaps the problem with ‘crack music’ is the audacity of the aspiration, that black men like Michael Jackson and Kanye West have the gall to attempt such dizzying heights.10
One thing is certain, in the case of a man who can fly, ‘it’s all done in the heavens’, awe must eventually turn to resentment, no matter his colour.Invinciblewas Michael Jackson’s successful attempt to craft his own musical world, while his multiple personas sped ahead of him. Yet, Invincible, though still largely relegated to a “lesser work”, far surpasses much of what was released in the same decade, yet alone the same year. 11
Like William Shakespeare’s most dismissive critics and staunchest supporters, all will be long dead by the time Invincible’sfate is decided, and just like Shakespeare’s Tempest, the latter works of a great artist can be overlooked by audiences in their time. People forget that Shakespeare’s plays, now so exalted, were the common entertainment of prostitutes and peasantry in the seamier side of seventeenth century London.
The playhouses were far from the air conditioned theatres of today but plague-filled pits which incubated disease. As our modern actors spout four-hundred year-old lines in Received Pronunciation on brand new stages made of imported wood, ‘we cannot recreate the stenches, the clothes of the audience, their mindset, the surrounding city’. Shakespeare’s Thames teemed with sewage and his lyrical constructions have more to do with ‘crack music’ than most would like to admit. It is easy to forget how working class William Shakespeare actually was and it took several years for Shakespeare to be regarded as a genius. Let us hope it doesn’t take so long for Michael, his blackness notwithstanding, ‘people will not understand this album right now. It’s ahead of its time[…] the album will live on forever’ because ‘music is what lives and lasts’.12
1. Kanye West, ‘Crack Music’, Late Registration. Exec. Prod. Kanye West. Roc-a-Fella/Def-Jam. 2005. CD. 9885652.
2. Michael Jackson, ‘Heaven Can Wait’, Invincible. Exec. Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 4951742000 (2001)
3. Michael Jackson, ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, HIStory Past, Present and Future Book 1. Michael Jackson. Exec. Prod. Michael Jackson, CD, 59000 – E2K/E2T/E2M (1995); ‘Threatened’, Invincible; ‘Crack Music’, Late Registration.
4. Richard Shusterman, ‘The Fine Art of Rap’, New Literary History, Vol. 22(3), pp. 613-632 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/469207> [accessed 18 October 2014]; Alexis Petridis, ‘Kanye West: Yeezus – review’, Guardian17 June 2013 <http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/17/kanye-west-yeezus-review> [accessed 18 October 2014].
5. Elizabeth Amisu, ‘On Michael Jackson’s Dancing the Dream’, Writing Eliza, 7 July 2014 <http://elizabethamisu.com/post/91073957802/on-michael-jacksonsdancing-the-dream-dangerous> [accessed 22 July 2014].
6. Conversation with Karin Merx, Academic/Musician, 27 September 2014; James Hunter, ‘Invincible’, Rolling Stone, 6 December 2001 <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/invincible-20011206#ixzz3GW7W6wrM>; Hampton Stevens, ‘Michael Jackson’s Unparalleled Influence,’ The Atlantic. 24 June 2010.
7. ‘Crack Music’, Late Registration.
8. Joseph Vogel, Man in the Music(Sterling, 2011), p. 219-235; Joseph Vogel, ‘Second to None: Race, Representation and the Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music’, Featuring Michael Jackson: Collected Writings on the King of Pop(Baldwin Books, 2012), pp. 7-14.
9. Armond White, Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles(Resistance Works, 2010), p. 106; ‘Crack Music’, Late Registration.
10. Michael Bush, The King of Style – Dressing Michael Jackson(California: Insight Editions, 2012), p. 196; Elizabeth Amisu, ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’: Revisiting the Peter Pan of Pop’, 22 August 2014, Writing Eliza<http://elizabethamisu.com/post/93786694677/the-isle-is-full-of-noises-revisiting-the-peter-pan> [accessed 28 September 2014].
11. Michael Jackson, VIBE Magazine. March 2002; Elizabeth Amisu, ‘Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands: Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson’, Writing Eliza, 11 June 2014 <http://elizabethamisu.com/post/88515649217/throwing-stones-to-hideyour-hands-the-mortal-persona> [accessed 17 June 2014].
12. William Shakespeare, The Tempest(eds.) Alden T. Vaughan & Virginia Mason Vaughan (Arden, 2011), p. 1-2, 112-126; Rowan Moore, ‘Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – review’, Guardian, 12 January 2014 <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/12/sam-wanamaker-playhouse-globe-review> [accessed 18 October 2014]; Man in the Music, p. 219, 256-259; Michael Jackson, USA Today, 2001.